Thursday, October 27, 2011

Maja's detailed Report of Flying with women at El Tiro

Flying with women at El Tiro: a Seminar journal

This year's Women Soaring Pilot Association (WSPA) Annual Seminar took
place at El Tiro gliderport north of Tucson, Arizona, from September
22nd to 25th. Each Annual Seminar, which is the most important event for
WSPA, has specific goals set by the location and flying habits of the
hosting club. This year, the goals were improving cross-country (XC)
skills, Badge Work and aerobatics instruction. Customarily, the Annual
Seminars are organized during the summer when most WSPA members can take
time off. This year we had to change venues abruptly for some
unprecedented reasons, but September in Tucson seemed like an excellent
alternative to the original plans. Fourteen of us participated, a
relatively small number of participants, mostly due to the short
lead-time and the fact that schools have already started in September.
But, Tucson Soaring Club (TuSC) members went out of their way to make
this a memorable event for women pilots who could be there. Thus, we
were pampered by 78 TuSC volunteers in 4 days. TuSC members donated
money for one full Seminar scholarship ($500), grant money ($300)
towards hauling Neita's ASK21 all the way from Air Sailing; one of their
CFI-Gs donated his time, and they had a designated cook or two who
folded egg-whites into pancake batter every morning for us, and made
roast-beef au-jus, grilled beef au-jus, salmon (not au-jus), with loads
of good side-dishes and salads for every lunch and dinner, all made in
their club's kitchen. We had a great time!
The gliderport is about an hour drive on I-10, north from Tucson. Once
off the highway, directions to El Tiro are clearly labeled with road
signs. The street that finally leads to the gliderport is appropriately
named El Tiro Road, and it's unpaved for the last two miles. The
entrance to the gliderport grounds is a large gate, paddlocked at night,
after which the speed limit goes down to 10 mph to prevent raising too
much dust and sand onto the glider canopies. Like Air Sailing, El Tiro
is on Federal land (Bureau of Land Management), and consequently has
enough "real-estate" to house 11 runways (26 Right, Center, Left,
8R/C/L, 35 R/L, 17 R/L, and the diagonal winch runway), with 8/26
runways being the fantastic 7000 ft long. Club's and some private
gliders are kept in the shade hangar, which has wide roof and no walls,
where each glider is tied-down on the specially-built cement platform.
The club's fleet got almost completely destroyed few years ago by a
tornado which ripped gliders out of the tie-down spots and left them
mangled in the nearby bush and saguaros. The insurance covered the loss,
and El Tiro eventually recovered the fleet. However, in the wake of the
tornado and club operations being down for 6 months, they built this
super-sturdy shade hangar to protect aircraft from the future bad luck.
I arrived on Sept 17, a Saturday before the Seminar started, hoping I
could help with final preparations, as I am WSPA VP and Seminar
Coordinator. Also, getting all the check-out requirements early out of
the way seemed like a good idea. My host, Greg Hodgins, and I drove to
El Tiro that same afternoon. I got checked-out in their G103 Twin II
acro-ship, one of the three G103s Tucson Soaring Club uses for initial
training. The first flight was a standard 2000 ft high tow, with release
over the Black Hills, their source of house-thermals. After releasing at
around 4000 ft MSL, we found a strong thermal and flew to 8000 ft. This
gave us more than enough time to do standard maneuvers like stalls, slow
flight, and slow flight with spoilers fully open. In addition, I got
well acquainted with the local landmarks of Ragged Top, Silver Bell
Mine, and Pinal Airpark. Couple of pattern flights, one of which was a
simulated rope break followed by the landing on a different runway,
finished off the checkout process. Next day, Greg and I went for a 2
hour XC flight: we covered a larger part of the Avra Valley, to Waterman
and Towers South on the Southern side, and almost reached Picacho Peak
on the North. I got to see land-out fields. Good ones are Ultralight and
Sasco strip, both towable. A very bad place to land would be a
dirt-strip-looking place, south of Silver Bell Mines, where a hidden
missile-launch site was during the Cold War. On Monday, I finally went
flying by myself. It was a good enough soaring day that TuSC had
operations going, even though it is usually not open on Mon/Tue. I took
off in the early afternoon and found lift up to 10.000 ft in usual
places like Black Hills, hills sloping off of Silver Bell and around
Towers South. Sometimes even cattle ponds kicked off thermals, but
valley floor gave serious sink most of the time. It was very convenient
to have Black Hills to go back to in order to get high up again and stay
afloat. I stayed up for 2.3 hours.
Tuesday was a non-flying day for me, but Neita and Mark Montague, who
arrived from Air Sailing the night before with their ASK21 in tow, got
an area- and G103 check-outs so they could act as additional CFI-Gs
during the Seminar. In return, TuSC chief instructor, James Lyne, got
checked out in their ASK21, which was apparently a very nice experience
for James. Wednesday morning we got treated with the visit to the Desert
Museum, a very beautiful and very hot place. Wednesday afternoon
participants finally started arriving and the entire afternoon got
filled with more check-out flights. Since all the Grobs were taken, I
decided to take the hosts up on their offer and get checked out in a
PW6, dual-seater of Polish built, which "is a great spinner like all the
other Eastern European gliders". I read the manual, passed the mandatory
test, washed the glider as part of the pre-flight (the washing part also
mandatory), and went flying with Chuck Schroll, a good soul who donated
all of his CFI-G time to women pilots during the Seminar. PW6 flies with
a nose-high attitude, so it took me few minutes to switch the
pitch-attitude from the Grob's to the PW6's best L/D . PW6 is an easy
ship to fly, and unlike Grob, very light on the rudder. It was a breeze
to stay coordinated, After a single dual flight, I flew it solo very
briefly, since the sun was setting and all the lift was almost
completely gone by that point. One of the oddities of PW6 is that it
should not be towed in low-tow position because the tow-rope would rub
against the fuselage and damage it eventually. I guess boxing the wake
is still OK, since James Lyne and I did it the next day on our way to
the acrobatics "box".
Thursday, Sept 22 2011, finally the whole thing started officially. For
me the highlight of the Seminar was the opportunity to get instruction
in aerobatic flight. TuSC has three acrobatics instructors who are also
competition acro-pilots. One of them is their chief instructor, James
Lyne, with whom I had two acrobatics flights Thu afternoon. But before
that afternoon excitement, we got a great lecture by their parachute
rigger, Mike Morgan. Mike-the-rigger worked once upon a time with Alan
Silver, our own NCSA parachute rigger. WSPA participants got to read
Alan's old articles from Soaring Magazine on proper parachute
pre-flight, fitting and bailing-out procedure from the glider. As part
of the demonstration, I got to deploy the parachute, and learn how to
find steering handles to land parachute as safely as possible. Bail-out
practice was an eye-opener. One thing that becomes crystal-clear right
away is that if you have never done the bail-out routine before, you
will be too slow; probably too slow to save yourself if the situation
was for real. I did the "bail-out" twice in a row, and second time I was
significantly faster. Practice makes perfect, and as Alan suggests in
his articles, it probably does pay to rehearse the bailing process every
time one gets in and out of the glider. Apart from being useful, this
exercise had a great entertainment value because we got to jump out of
the glider and onto the mattress by diving out head-first…and there are
many "styles" of leaving that glider in a rush. The fastest girl,
Gretchen, got an award that evening for the speediest egress from the
My first acro-flight was in PW6: spin training with recovery to a
heading. First two spins were one full turn, spinning to the left and to
the right. Both times, I overshot the heading during the recovery. On
the last one, I spun PW6 three full rotations, experienced the fully
developed spin with the nose of the aircraft pointing straight down to
the ground, and recovered exactly on the heading. On the second
acro-flight in G103 I got to practice loops, chandelles and wingovers.
Loop entry was at 120 kts, which allows for a nice, large, show-like
loop. At 120 kts, pulling the stick back to about 3 Gs, got us up and
inverted. Since the inverted portion of the loop is not sustained, it
feels like weightless state, we did not really experience negative G
force. With stick relaxed, the glider recovers into the upright flight.
One of the consequences of aerobatics flight, is that afterwards,
landing pattern speed seems very slow. It was true for me: I had to work
hard not to fly too fast. Adrenalin-rush immediately after the
acro-maneuvers made straight-and-level flight awfully boring.
Friday morning brought fun and educational landing exercises. Women
got to practice low-energy short-field landings, ground-effect flying
and steep approaches. Flying in ground effect along 4000-5000 ft of the
runway was everyone's favorite. To get enough energy for a long glide in
ground effect the landing approach speed needed to be as high as
65-70kts. Once ready to flare, the spoilers got closed completely. The
glider had enough energy to fly for a long time in ground effect, only
few feet above ground, before it eventually settled down very gently,
"like a butterfly with sore feet".
Training in cross-country flying took form of the team-flying challenge.
On Friday afternoon, teams did XC practice-flights, so everyone would
get first acquainted with local turn-points and land-out options. Since
by Friday I got to know most of the local XC area, and since all the
dual-seat gliders got occupied, I decided to go get another check-out
and fly solo in a PW5. It is a single-seat version of PW6, and, of
course, another "excellent spinner of Eastern European origin". After
fighting with the seat-belts that appeared to be modeled on leather
weight lifting belts, I took off around 2 pm. It was not a good soaring
day. The cumuli were there, marking the lift, but those were not growing
cumulus clouds. They appeared flat, and the lift beneath them was rather
weak and disorganized. In addition, frequent overdevelopment kept
shutting down the reliable source of thermals. PW5 is a very light
aircraft, and the "secure" feeling of flying in a heavy Grob was gone.
It took me awhile to habituate to the fact that I will be bounced around
a lot. Like PW6, the ship is very light on controls and easy to fly.
Because of its short wingspan and very slow minimum sink and best L/D
speed, it climbs nicely even in weak thermals. After the initial
struggle, I spent almost half of the 3.4h hour flight between 6000 and
10000 feet MSL. The Grobs and ASK21 that all took-off before me were
coming back to land very quickly. Some of them tried to connect to the
thermal I was in, but without much success: PW5 had an unfair advantage
in the weak lift conditions. The downside of PW5 is obviously the very
poor penetration into the wind: 47kts best L/D speed will get you down
more-less vertically once in sink. The OLC trace for this flight is
rather funny, showing mostly thermalling, and not much horizontal
flying, until later in the afternoon, when sink associated with cumulus
clouds was gone.
Saturday, I teamed up with the local woman pilot, Sheena Stogsdill for
the OLC XC challenge. TuSC weatherman, Mike Stringfellow, gave us a
weather briefing in the morning, which turned out to be too optimistic.
The cloud street running to the south of El Tiro was supposed to take us
all the way to the Baboquivary Mountains further southwest where the
long convergence awaited, marked by cumulus clouds all the way to
Mexico. Around 1pm, a long grid of gliders kept getting longer as all of
those who took-off, quickly came down because the cloud street
overdeveloped right above El Tiro shutting down the lift. Sheena and I
caught a blue thermal after the second take-off attempt. Once we got to
10.000 ft we pressed on south, towards clouds that promised more and
higher lift. The highest we got that day was 12.500 ft, to keep us legal
without oxygen supply. We had a portable oxygen system that sat next to
Sheena in the back seat. But with only one flow regulator, it meant only
about 15-20 min of oxygen for the two of us. It seemed easier to just
stay below the 12.500 ft, and we did fine on that day (tomorrow was a
different story, though). Decision was made to try to go further
southwest towards Kitt Peak, but we quickly reneged on that commitment
because of the unrelenting sink we encountered and no known land-out
places in the rugged terrain. Instead, we changed course towards east.
We skirted Ryan Field, and made it to Robles Junction to see Sheena's
house, before we finally headed back "home" and away from almost
complete overdevelopment further south. Even going back north towards El
Tiro and Black Hills was a struggle because all we had to work with were
small sunny patches that did not always make thermals. The few
good-looking clouds were too far for us at that point. Once we reached
the relative safety of El Tiro and Black Hills, we got disappointed
again: the usual sources of blue thermals were covered by cloud shadows
most of the time. It took monitoring when each potential thermal source
got insolated and then waiting for at least 10 minutes of sunshine to
finally attempt getting some lift off of it. We did something right,
because we finally managed to get back to 11.000 ft. There were no
clouds north of where we were, but it looked like we would encounter
less sink if headed that way, than back south. By the time we reached
the foothills of Picacho Peak to the north, it was getting to be dinner
time and we headed back to El Tiro. The rest of the flight was spent
monitoring who was landing before us, eating animal crackers and Sheena
did some wingovers and steep turns for me as she got bored with
straight-and-level flight. (A side note on Sheena: she is a 20 year old
acrobatics glider pilot of impressive precision and talent. Since her
dad is also an acro-instructor and TuSC A&P, Sheena started flying
early, when she was 13. On her 4th solo flight she had a "dogfight" with
her dad flying the other glider.)
Saturday evening was a WSPA Banquet, this year specially honored by a
lecture given by a former space-shuttle commander Don McMonagle, who
flew on three missions. Overloaded power generator kept blowing fuses
during his talk, but he was quick on his feet. Don pulled out a Space
Shuttle "toy" and explained all three modes of emergency landings and
then some, all without lights or a working projector.
On Sunday, the last day of the Seminar, the soaring weather was finally
outstanding. Unfortunately, most of the participants were pooped. I woke
up immensely tired, with heart racing at 130 beats/min. Since no amount
of coffee or food helped, and after seeing Sheena in the same condition,
I concluded that we both got hypoxic on the previous day's flight and it
carried over as fatigue the next day. After all, we did spend most of
the time of 3.4h flight between 9 and 12 thousand feet without
supplemental oxygen. I wanted to do precision landings solo in order to
finish off the leftover Bronze Badge requirements. Trusty PW5 was all
mine. Chuck Schroll set-up orange cones for me, marking the beginning
and end of the 600ft stretch of the runway, within which I was supposed
to touch-down and come to a complete stop. The first landing was as
hoped for. When the time came for my second take-off, we got a
radio-call from one of the airborne gliders that the dust-storm is
coming our way. Everyone locked their canopies and waited beside their
gliders for the storm to blow over. After few minutes it appeared that
it was bypassing us on the east side of the field, and we got a "green
light" from the line chief to resume operations. I was the first one to
take-off from 26. When the tow-plane made its usual left 180 degree turn
towards east, we faced a "wall of sand", which was high enough that we
could not see Mt Lemon and Catalina Mts on the other side of Avra Valley
and I-10. The dust-storm was not bypassing anything, it was going right
over the field! Tow-pilot kept circling above the west side of the
field, and in front of the dust-storm, until we got to the pattern
altitude. Luckily, there was lift everywhere, since I needed to stay up
for another 30 minutes because the ops got shut down again on the
ground. Eventually, I landed "downwind" on rwy 8, since 26 was jammed
with the gliders in the grid, and rwy 17 which would have made the most
sense, if the wind-socks are to be trusted, was at the edge of the
storm, and the awesome wind-shear made it difficult to have good
airspeed control on the final.
After all that excitement and my pulse rate still going at 130, I called
it a day. After a nap on the futon on the conference room floor, and the
lunch of elegant Mexican dinner leftovers catered for the previous
night's event, I spent the rest of the afternoon on the shaded porch of
the club-house, watching gliders go by, and enjoying my water spiked
with electrolytes. 100F never felt so cool.
The Seminar in Tucson was a success for every participant, as well as
organizers. Women achieved Gold Altitudes and Badges, some of us had
first serious acro-instruction, and some young ones got to see for the
first time what 10.000 ft gain in altitude feels like in comparison to
their wet, Seattle, 100 ft gain on a good day. At this point I have to
specially mention two TuSC members, Kate Porter and Greg Hodgins, who
put their hearts and heads together to make this a really special event
for women pilots. Three of us worked hard to jump-start the whole
project back in April 2011, get appropriate-turned-overwhelming support
from their club, as well as do as early PR as possible. Gretchen Gibbs
designed the wonderful logo for the Seminar, which we all enjoy now on
our Seminar t-shirts and posters. At the end, we all had tremendous fun
working and flying together, and both TuSC and WSPA got some loyal new
PS. Few links:
In addition, please find attached the pdf file of photographs taken by
our "official" photographer Pete Rendek, whose daughter Kim got one of
the WSPA scholarships to help her towards her private rating:;jsessionid=8ACAAD4D6A5108D95AEC6FA88BCE1188?dsId=2133058;jsessionid=8ACAAD4D6A5108D95AEC6FA88BCE1188?dsId=2135456;jsessionid=8ACAAD4D6A5108D95AEC6FA88BCE1188?dsId=2136390